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Georgia high school closed due to coronavirus in district with 1K in quarantine

NBC News logo NBC News 8/13/2020 Ben Kesslen and Minyvonne Burke
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A Georgia school district that does not require masks has closed a high school and now has over 1,100 students and staff in quarantine due to the coronavirus.

The Cherokee County School District, based in Canton about 40 miles north of Atlanta, made the announcement Tuesday, just eight days after its schools reopened.

"This decision was not made lightly," Superintendent Brian Hightower said in a statement about the temporary halt to in-person instruction at Etowah High School. He said the high school had 14 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 15 tests pending as of Tuesday morning.

"As a result of the confirmed cases, 294 students and staff are under quarantine and, should the pending tests prove positive, that total would increase dramatically," the superintendent said.

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In total, the district has 59 confirmed cases of the virus, Hightower said.

It also has 1,156 students and 37 staff in quarantine, according to a district list.

Hightower warned that because the coronavirus cases are predominantly at the district's high schools more of those schools could be closed.

Riley Ball, a student at Creekview High School, said one-way hallways have been implemented but classrooms don't allow for much social distancing.

"With how the classrooms are set up, kids are in very close range to each other no matter what," he told MSNBC. "But outside of that, when students do have control of who they're around and who they're near, there's still quite a few people that will get into groups and go to places whether they're wearing a mask or not."

The high school junior said he thinks masks should be required.

"I feel like if it was required, there would be a lot more students that would be wearing masks," he said. "There are a fair number of students that do wear masks, but there's still a large amount of people that don't."

Creekview has more than 100 students under quarantine, according to the district's list. Ball said a student in his class tested positive for the virus, but he was told he didn't need to quarantine because he wasn't in direct contact with the student.

He said it still makes him uneasy. "I feel like it would be a lot safer and a lot better if instead ... it was being treated like the whole classroom was at risk instead of just the people directly near that person."

The Cherokee County district — which has an enrollment of 42,000, of whom over 30,000 are receiving in-person instruction — recommends but does not require students to wear masks.

But the superintendent said in his statement that wearing masks may help prevent the closure of more schools.

"As your Superintendent, I wear a mask whenever I cannot social distance," Hightower said. "We know all parents do not believe the scientific research that indicates masks are beneficial, but I believe it and see masks as an important measure to help us keep schools open."

“When we announced plans to reopen schools with options of in-person learning and Digital Learning at home, we made clear the challenges that came along with this choice for our families,” he said.

Prior to the reopening of schools on Aug. 3, some teachers and parents protested the district's plan.

In July, dozens of demonstrators, including teachers, protested outside a school board meeting, according to Georgia Public Broadcasting.

And some teachers resigned before the school year started due to safety concerns, according to the Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News.

One of them was teacher Allison Webb, who worked at Sequoyah High School.

“Out of 2,000 students in this school, 1,500 will be returning in person — without a mandatory mask requirement,” Webb told the news outlet in late July, saying this frightened her.

Another teacher said she was also concerned about the lack of a mask mandate, but planned to return to the classroom.

“My personal fear is that I’m going to die before my career is over, that this tiny virus is what’s going to take me out, and not old age or some horrific accident," science teacher Olivia Vacid told the Tribune & Ledger News. "I don’t understand the county’s refusal to mandate masking for students."

Parent Amanda Seghetti, whose child attends Woodstock Middle School, told MSNBC that she decided to keep her child home for online classes.

"I just felt like, without there being more social distancing measures and the requirement of masks for all students, that it just wasn't the best idea for him to go in person," she said.

Seghetti said her son will continue online classes for the remainder of the semester and will reevaluate in January.

"I want him to go back," she said. But she added, "I want the numbers to go down. I want to see that with sending students to school, we aren't having these huge outbreaks. And I'm not seeing that right now."

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